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The Dresden Years

In 1951 Richter returned to his birth-city Dresden to attend the Academy. It was a changed city, having almost been obliterated by the bombing campaigns of the Allied forces in February 1945: 'Some buildings, or parts of buildings, were still intact, especially in Güntzstrasse where I was first and where all the first-year students studied. What I remember vividly is that very often, practically every day, we would walk through rubble to get from one building to the next, from Güntzstrasse to Brühl's Terrace and back. The whole city was strewn with rubble.'19 Initially, Richter lived with his aunt Gretl just outside the city, who supported him financially. But soon after enrolling at the Academy, Richter moved to an apartment in Dresden, sharing it with a few friends. The flat was located on the same street as the house of Marianne Eufinger's parents, a fashion and textile student that Richter had just met. Known as 'Ema', she and Richter were to marry in 1957.


Richter was excited to be studying at the Academy: 'it was something really great to be admitted to the Academy at all, and even the wrecked building on Brühl's Terrace was very impressive. It was great being part of all that, and the fact that the teachers were real artists.'20 The five-year course was rigorous, with lessons beginning at 8 am carrying on for eight hours every day: 'It was a very academic, traditional school, where you learned from plaster copies and nude models.'21 Besides daily instruction in life drawing, still life and figurative painting, the Academy had a curriculum that included art history, Russian, politics and economics – subjects Richter found as objectionable as the early mornings.


Although a traditionally conservative institution, in the 1950s the Academy appeared almost liberal in comparison with the Soviet authorities - whose agenda was increasingly imposed on the Academy during Richter's time there. 'The goal was socialist realism and the Dresden Academy was especially obedient in this regard.'22 In conversation with Jan Thorn- Prikker, Richter said: 'It became increasingly ideological. For example, we weren't able to borrow books that dealt with the period beyond the onset of Impressionism because that was when bourgeois decadence set in.'23 The study of this modern period of experimentation, identified as 'formalist art' by the authorities, was not permitted. There were, however, exceptions. Picasso and Renato Guttoso, for example, were tolerated because of their outspoken support of communism. Richter took the opportunity to engage with such artists when he could, being unsatisfied with the Academy's insistence on socialist realism. Yet he has remained appreciative of his time there, acknowledging that 'the training I received had a great influence on me.'24


Richter joined the newly established mural painting department, studying under Heinz Lohmar. Robert Storr has pointed out how this department was well known as being less strict in its application of the socialist realist model, probably causing Richter to opt for Lohmar over the more prominent tutors Hans and Lea Grundig. Richter also had a long-standing fascination for mural painting, having met the artist Hans Lillig as a teenager in Waltersdorf. Lillig had been commissioned to paint a mural at the elementary school, and, as Dietmar Elger has commented, Richter had been allowed to sit and observe the artist at work, even showing some of his drawings to him. Further, Richter took a liking to Lohmar, who, 'although a loyal Communist Party member, remained a comparatively well-informed and cosmopolitan figure.'25


With the Academy clamping down on reference materials and news from the West, Richter found other means of keeping up-to-date. An aunt in West Germany would send him the photographic magazine Magnum every month, and he would obtain books and catalogues whenever he could. With the support of his tutor, Richter was authorised to travel to West Germany and beyond, which he did several times during the 1950s. Organised trips to Berlin granted him access to films, museums, and the theatre. This enabled Richter to stay in touch with developments in contemporary art, complementing the inspiring resources available to him in the GDR, such as “Caspar David Friedrich and other good painters of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Rococo paintings and pastels,'26 at the museum at Pillnitz Castle.


The students were influenced by the political developments around them. Richter has commented on being shown photographs of the concentration camps for the first time, whilst standing in the courtyard of the Academy. 'I was in my early twenties. I'll never forget it. It was like a document, with reportage photos. Awful records [...] I remember wondering afterwards why East Germany hadn't made more of a fuss about it. It was almost like a secret book. It was like irrefutable proof of something we had always half known.'27 There were also uprisings against the Soviet authorities, culminating on 17th June 1953, when Richter and some fellow students gathered at Postplatz in the centre of Dresden.


In his final year at the Academy, Richter was offered a commission as part of his thesis project: to paint a mural for the Deutsches Hygienemuseum [German Hygiene Museum] with the theme 'joy of life' [Lebensfreude]. The mural is described by Elger as 'the celebration of a joyful socialist system liberated from fascism'28 and by Storr as '[...] true to its type and period: solidly modeled figures of healthy men, women and children engaged in life- enhancing activities.'29 It was received with considerable praise and enthusiasm by both his examiners and officials at the Hygiene Museum. Bearing none of the hallmarks of his mature works, the mural nonetheless represented a juncture for Richter: 'Maybe for some short moment I thought this could be a future for me, making big paintings, public paintings [... But] I never really thought that I would have a job in this field, painting murals or as a public artist.'30


On completing his studies in 1956, Richter was accepted onto a scheme for promising graduates, run by the Academy. In exchange for teaching evening classes to the public, he received a studio and income for the next three years. He was also awarded a number of commissions for murals, including an exotic and fantastical scene for a nursery school, a map and sundial for a school on the Polish border, and a substantial painting for the walls of the Socialist Unity Party regional headquarters in Dresden. The latter has been described as featuring 'muscular men and women wielding sledge-hammers and paving stones, and waving banners as they confront mounted troops swinging truncheons.'31


Despite Richter's growing career, he was getting increasingly uncomfortable with the restrictions imposed on his work: 'The thing that was really unbearable was the hopelessness, the pressure to succumb – how shall I say? – to compromise, to fall in line.'32 And while he was not willing to associate himself too closely with the underground art scene, whom he thought had developed 'a kind of haughtiness,'33 he was still searching for a viable position and a new aesthetic language. 'After all, we had this grand illusion of a 'third way'. That was the promising mixture of Capitalism and Socialism. [...] this 'third way' was kind of an idealistic dream.'34


A turning point came when Richter visited documenta II, taking place in Kassel in 1959. Seeing works by Jackson Pollock, Jean Fautrier, and Lucio Fontana made Richter aware that 'there was something wrong with my whole way of thinking,'35 seeing their work as an 'expression of a totally different and entirely new content.'36 The exhibition made clear to Richter the creative prohibitions imposed on him, especially in terms of using abstraction as a painterly method. This, and the worsening conditions of the Cold War, led Richter and Ema to decide that they would leave the GDR for West Germany. According to Elger, in March 1961, just a few months before construction of the Berlin Wall began, Richter travelled to Moscow and Leningrad as a tourist, carrying more luggage than he needed. On the journey back, he remained on the train as it went through to West Germany, where he got off and left his bags in storage at the train station. He then returned to Dresden to meet Ema. A friend drove them to East Berlin, where they took the underground train to the West, declaring themselves as refugees on arrival. Soon after his defection, on April 6, 1961, he wrote the following letter to his professor, Heinz Lohmar:


“It is very difficult for me to write to you today. We have left Dresden to start a new life in West Germany. In light of the current political situation, this sort of move (even if only temporarily) is considered an act of desertion and makes us liable to prosecution. I had to take that into account, and therefore for reasons of caution could not speak to anyone about my work. It required a long period of consideration and introspection to find clarity on the pros and cons of my plans and finally to take a decision, which I am convinced is the right one.

The reasons are largely to do with my career [...] When I say that the whole cultural 'climate' in the West offers me and my artistic endeavours more, that it is more compatible with my way of being and my way of working than the climate in the East, I am pointing out the main reason behind my decision. Incidentally, I became completely certain of this during my journey to Moscow and Leningrad.

I don't wish to expound any further right now on the reasons for my leaving. I just want to tell you that it was very difficult for me to go, even though I knew I had to act; I am aware of what I have left behind, and mine was not a careless decision based on a desire to drive nicer cars. I'm especially sorry to have to send you such an announcement. I do not want to ask you for forgiveness and cannot expect you to condone my actions, but I do want to take the liberty of sincerely thanking you with all my heart for all that you have done for me, for all the trouble you have gone to support me and my work in every way. I will always appreciate that.'37


19 Interview with Jan Thorn-Prikker, 2004. Gerhard Richter: Text, 2009, p.467.

20 Ibid., p.468.

21 Interview with Bruce Ferguson and Jeffrey Spalding, 1978. Gerhard Richter: Text, 2009, p.106. 22 Richter, cited in Elger, A Life in Painting, 2009, p.12.

23 Interview with Jan Thorn-Prikker, 2004. Gerhard Richter: Text, 2009, p.468.

24 Interview with Bruce Ferguson and Jeffrey Spalding, 1978. Gerhard Richter: Text, 2009, p.106. 25 Storr, Forty Years of Painting, 2002, p.21.

26 Interview with Richter by Robert Storr, 2002. Gerhard Richter: Text, 2009, p.376.

27 Interview with Jan Thorn-Prikker, 2004. Gerhard Richter: Text, 2009, pp.469-70. 28 Elger, A Life in Painting, 2009, p.17.

29 Storr, Forty Years of Painting, 2002, p.21.

30 Interview with Richter by Robert Storr, 2002. Gerhard Richter: Text, 2009, p.376. 31 Storr, Forty Years of Painting, 2002, p.22.

32 Interview with Jan Thorn-Prikker, 2004. Gerhard Richter: Text, 2009, p.470. 

33 Ibid., p.468.

34 Interview with Jan Thorn-Prikker, 2004. Gerhard Richter: Text, 2009, pp.468-9; Speaking with Benjamin Buchloh, Richter elaborates, 'I lived my life with a group of people who laid claim to a moral aspiration, who wanted to bridge a gap, who were looking for a middle way between capitalism and Socialism, a so-called Third Path. And so the way we thought, and what we wanted for our own art, was all about compromise. Interview with Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, 1986, Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting, Writings 1962-1993, Hans Ulrich Obrist [ed.], Thames & Hudson, London 1995 [1995 edition, reprinted 2005], p.132 / Gerhard Richter: Text, 2009, p.164.

35 Interview with Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, 1986, Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting, Writings 1962-1993, Hans Ulrich Obrist [ed.], Thames & Hudson, London 1995 [1995 edition, reprinted 2005], pp.132-3 / Gerhard Richter: Text, 2009, pp.163-4.

36 Ibid., pp.132-3; pp. 163-4.

37 Letter to Professor Heinz Lohmar, 1961. Gerhard Richter: Text, 2009, p.13.